Critical Thinking Note 14: The Security Blanket Paradox

It’s time to announce the first general release of my open source Introduction to Philosophy. If you are looking for some light reading for your spring break you can find this electronic text as a Word file or as a PDF on the Philosophy Department website here:

I’ll be hosting weekly faculty commons sessions next quarter where we will go through the text book club style. We’ll cover the 11 chapters in 11 weeks. Sign up for the lot or drop in for the chapters that interest you. Helpful critiques are more than welcome. One of the cool things about an open source electronic text is that I can revise at will. So I’m eager to hear about “areas for improvement” for this text. In the mean time, here’s a short excerpt from Chapter 1:

We humans are very prone to suffer from a psychological predicament we might call “the security blanket paradox.” We know the world is full of hazards, and like passengers after a shipwreck, we tend to latch on to something for a sense of safety. We might cling to a possession, another person, our cherished beliefs, or any combination of these. The American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce speaks of doubt and uncertainty as uncomfortable anxiety-producing states. This would help explain why we tend to cling, even desperately, to beliefs we find comforting. This clinging strategy, however, leads us into a predicament that becomes clear once we notice that having a security blanket just gives us one more thing to worry about. In addition to worrying about our own safety, we now are anxious about our security blanket getting lost or damaged. The asset becomes a liability. The clinging strategy for dealing with uncertainty and fear becomes counterproductive.

While not calling it by this name, Russell describes the intellectual consequences of the security blanket paradox vividly:

The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the cooperation or consent of his deliberate reason. . . The life of the instinctive man is shut up within the circle of his private interests. . . In such a life there is something feverish and confined, in comparison with which the philosophic life is calm and free. The private world of instinctive interests is a small one, set in the midst of a great and powerful world which must, sooner or later, lay our private world in ruins.

The primary value of philosophy according to Russell is that it loosens the grip of uncritically held opinion and opens the mind to a liberating range of new possibilities to explore.

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. . . Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never traveled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.

Here we are faced with a stark choice between the feeling of safety we might derive from clinging to opinions we are accustomed to and the liberation that comes with loosening our grip on these in order to explore new ideas. The security blanket paradox should make it clear what choice we should consider rational. Russell, of course, compellingly affirms choosing the liberty of free and open inquiry.

Russ Payne

March 18, 2015

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